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Liner notes by Kevin Whitehead
Is it too much to suggest that on his four CDs so far, Chris Abelen has taken a thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach to bandleading?
His first albums, Dance of the penguins and What a Romance, featured his working quintet. Proost, his third (though recorded first), was for an ad hoc tentet. Now for Space he’s come up with another ad hoc tentet built around the working band. Two working bands, actually: the Abelen quintet and the Zapp! String Quartet, plus rogue clarinetist Ab Baars, returning from Proost.
Easy to hear why Zapp! garner so much praise, especially at home in Holland where they’re frequently heard: its members have obviously spent a lot of time matching and blending their sounds. Abelen sensibly enough deploys the quartet mostly as a unit rather than four independent voices. At the same time, he strings an integral part of the larger ensemble rather than using them as “sweetening.”
This embrace of cohesion may seem surprising, coming from a leader who - in the quintet’s early days way back in the mid-1990s - used to boast of the difficulty some members had in adjusting to one another. That difficulty led to a certain amount of creative tension in the rhythm section. But after a few tours, guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen, bassist Wilbert de Joode and the admirably discreet drummer Charles Huffstadt have made their ramshackle groove sound exactly right; listen to them on Corrie’s “Go” solo. And observe the exacting combination of her guitar and Tobias Delius’s tenor sax on “Le Mitan,” sounding like one instrument. (One reason the merger works: she’s always in tune. How many guitarists with a whammy bar can you say that about?) The hornless “Clean” in effect folds her guitar and de Joode’s bowed bass into an expanded string section. (Play that one for folks who say massed strings won’t swing.)
Abelen’s not above using strings in opposition to the jazz axes however: on “In the deep blue sea,” charging Stravinskian strings give way to (and then intermittently challenge) what sounds like a hip blues band. (Van Binsbergen’s superb wah-wah work is out of early electric Miles.) But somewhere during Abelen’s shout-trombone solo, the ensemble roles get all mixed up: fiddles provide the choppy accompaniment, and clarinets enter to play a distant background role of the sort often relegated to strings.
(That said, dig the haunting, hollow, thoroughly clarinetty blend Ab and Toby get here. They’re immediately re-paired on clarinets for the sequel “On the beach,” where their staccato part at the opening echoes those chugging violins on the previous number. Like Ellington, Abelen uses such echoes between pieces to add cohesion to the program.)
Many bandleaders set out to make a small band sound larger, through ingenious voicings; the perverse Abelen often makes eleven pieces sound like less. (All the compositions except “Heel” for Ab & Zapp and “Clean” are for all hands.) One philosophy of improvising promoted in Holland says, when you make a statement, always be forceful. Here players are sometimes content to whisper from the wings, barely audible: even the drummer and electric guitarist. Those murmurs can make for some spooky episodes, as on “Pool.”
Which is not to say the soloists don’t get their spots. The leader is not one to hog the spotlight, but we get further helpings of his clipped, precise trombone on “Le Mitan” and “ Coda.” Every note is cleanly articulated, with a bit of bite, and many phrases go out with lovely spiraling flourishes. Delius’s tough-guy-with-a-heart tenor opens the disc, and returns on “My Tie,” which exploits his great sense of drama: he prowls that uncluttered stage. The title “AB” is selfexplanatory; Baars is likewise all over “Heel,” where he mixes it up with cellist Emile Visser, Clean is for Jasper le Clercq.
Violist Oene van Geel solos on “008” and shows he really knows how to develop a line. It’s one of Abelen;s characteristically jaunty tunes, like “Go” (where the strings really snap, pizzicato) and the marchy raveup “Orange,” with a striking bass countermelody at the top, exploiting de Joode’s peerlessly plosive tones.
Chris Abelen does have his contrary side, and but as tunes like those remind you, he has a lot of fun leading a band too. More than most followers of Hegel do, I daresay.